This article is based upon a conversation Scott Hahn had with Gus Lloyd, on the station WBVM Spirit 90.5. You can listen to their conversation here.
Gus Lloyd: As we approach the celebration of the Incarnation of Christ, I wanted you to help us out today with what I’ll call historical Christmas, what it was really like in that part of the world in that point in history on the night that Jesus was born.

Scott Hahn: Well, if we were Jews living back in the time of Jesus, we would be looking at the end of the century much like we are today. If we were looking back over our shoulders, however, we would have a seen a century where our fortunes had been reversed, as Jews.

100 years before the birth of Jesus, the Hasmonian Dynasty had restored a golden age, sort of. The fortunes of monarchy and self-rule had come back to Judea for the first time in literally ages, centuries and centuries. And so it looked as though God was about to deliver the people by establishing a Judea restoration, a Judean monarchy.

And then in 63 B.C., Pompey and Rome put those dreams out to pasture forever. Within the next five or six decades things got rough because the Roman occupation took its toll, not only economically and politically, but psychologically, the people were downcast.

And in fact they were really being ruled now not just by Rome, but in a humiliating way by a new dynasty that Rome had sponsored, we know it now in history as the Herodian Dynasty.

Understanding the Real Meaning of Christmas: Don’t Forget Herod!

Herod of course is the perpetrator of the Slaughter of the Innocents, and so we know politically speaking he could not have been an inspiring monarch. He could not have been someone who instilled virtue in the people.

Instead he instilled terror. And he did so deliberately as a matter of state policy you might say. But he had good reason to do so, because if you look in the Old Testament, especially I’m thinking of the book of Numbers, Numbers chapter 24 describes the prophecy of Balaam and it points to the Messiah that is still to come in 14 centuries.

And in Number 24 verse 17, this prophet announced,

“I see him, but not now. I behold him, but not nigh. A star shall come forth out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise of out Israel. And it shall crush the head of Moab and Edom shall be dispossessed.”

Now the prophecy pointed forward very far into the future, but it was a well-known prophecy. And the rabbis all speculated about its meaning for the Messiah.

And Herod had much more to fear than anybody because he was a descendant of Edom. So when he read that prophecy about how a star would appear and that would mark the coming of the Messiah who would crush Moab and Edom, the two enemies neighboring Israel, he realized, “Wait a second. What are you telling me, Magi? You’ve seen a star? You’ve seen his star? Pray tell, where was it so that I can go to worship?”

Again, with the Old Testament background that Matthew provides, the Magi who come from afar seeing the star, coming through Jerusalem, coming to Bethlehem, that would have sent shivers down Herod’s spine. That was just a terrifying message, which helps us to understand exactly why he just extended his genocidal policy to the male children in Bethlehem.

Understanding Christmas: The Magi Mean more than You Know!

But it’s interesting though because when you look at the Magi coming from so far away, that also fulfills a prophecy. We don’t have the time to delve into it, but I’ll just point our listeners to Isaiah chapter 60, because way back in Isaiah’s time, if you look at the 60th chapter of Isaiah, a time of exile, a time of enslavement, a time of humiliation, in six centuries, seven, eight centuries later, Isaiah is pointing toward the Messiah’s coming, and not just the Messiah coming for the Jews, but the nations themselves responding in faith.

And so Isaiah 60, verse two, and likewise, Psalm 72, verse 10 and other passages, point to the day that when the Messiah comes, the nations themselves will respond along with the Jews in this newfound faith, and they will bring tribute to this new king.

And the Magi then in effect represent the first wave of gentiles responding in faith. Here they are bringing gold, frankincense, and myrrh and offering this as tribute to the new king.

And what’s so stupendous about this is that God in his mercy isn’t just giving the Messiah to his own people. He’s redefining his own people, including the likes of us, including the lowest of the likes of us, the Magi, and for that matter Luke describes the shepherds being shown the angelic vision. And if you went back in the first century and just went down the street, we’re taking a poll, what do you think of Magi?

These people who come from the Orient, who are obviously into astrology, who are nonetheless receptive to these astral signs. What do you think of them? Well, what the Jewish rabbis of the time thought of them, the rabbis had a famous saying, that if anybody learns anything from a magus, or from the Magi, let them be accursed, because the Magi in the eyes of the Jews were simply sorcerers, and they practiced the black arts.

And what’s so interesting then, that in offering gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, you can actually trace these three substances back to how the sorcerers practiced the black arts.

It was probably not just tribute.

It was probably also an act of renunciation.

Now they have found the son of God, now they have found this Jewish Messiah. They can do without the very things that they have used to practice the black arts.

The Significance of the Shepherds for the Real Meaning of Christmas

Likewise the shepherds in Luke’s gospel.

We often assume that the shepherds are just nice country boys out there tending the flocks. But once again, a little bit of cultural background helps, because in ancient times, especially around Judea, shepherds were generally distrusted.

In fact, shepherds were widely regarded as thieves and liars, mainly because the flocks they tended didn’t have well-defined boundaries and so the flocks that grew were essentially understood almost by assumption to have been grown through a kind of embezzlement or theft.

You were taking from the flocks of other people. That’s why the rabbis also had a custom that no shepherd or no foreigner could offer testimony in any court of law. They were just simply regarded as liars.

So here is God, not just coming to the Jews in the city of David, the birthplace of the great king, but he’s also reaching out to the Gentiles. And the Gentiles such as the Magi and the shepherds.

Putting this In Perspective

To put this into perspective, I like to think, “If I were God, what would I have done?”

I think two or three decades before the birth of my son, I would have caused some inventor to come up with a B52. I think we would have developed dynamite and fireworks also for the occasion. And I think at least six months beforehand, and maybe a year beforehand, I would have sent those B52s roaring across the skies. I would’ve put on a fireworks display. And I would’ve made sure that a wake-up call had gone out to the rulers, to the princes, to the kings, the rich and the mighty men, and so, “You guys, you’re on alert. My man is coming, and he is your Messiah and you better give him everything he deserves or it’s over for you.”

Gus Lloyd: Man, I love how you put that. Scott, let me interject here a couple of thoughts and get your opinion on these, okay? First of all, it’s interesting and it’s fascinating how you bring up how God brought his son into the world with the Magi coming, these sorcerers, these people who dabbled in the black arts as you put it. And the first people to know about it were shepherds who were considered thieves and lowlifes. And then all throughout his life, Jesus was kind of looked at as someone who hung out with prostitutes and tax collectors and lowlifes, if you will. So, not only was that a theme that had started his life here on earth with, but it also went throughout his whole life that way.

The Significance of the Shepherds for the Real Meaning of Christmas

Scott Hahn: We need really to listen to what you just said, to what the Holy Spirit is saying through the Word, and take our cue.

Because I think a lot of us just keep waiting for the politicians to say, “What have we been thinking? Jesus Christ is king of kings.” Or we keep waiting for Wall Street to join the White House in saying, “Hey, let’s really live in a different way for the next millennium.” And it just ain’t gonna happen. If it didn’t happen with the first coming, it’s not gonna happen until the second coming.

And so we have to look and see the reality. And the reality is God’s mercy. If he’s reaching out to the Magi, and if he’s reaching out to the shepherds, all the while Herod conspires with the chief priests and these others to bring down the prospects of this Messiah, that’s a baffling mystery in itself, but it’s enough for us to take our cue.

If we were living back then in Bethlehem, we would’ve seen Mary and Joseph being turned down at the inn and going to a stable, which might have probably been in a cave. We would’ve seen them and thought, “Talk about lowlifes. Talk about losers.”

Here they are, the royal couple, about to give birth to the son of God. Here is the mother of God, and yet she has embraced poverty from her heart. And in the process, the sorcerers show up, and then the shepherds.

It’d almost be like word travels fast in my neighborhood. A new baby is born and everybody’s looking out the window and suddenly they see these cars show up and out comes the mafia. And then some local prostitutes, and then some bag ladies knock on the door. Not exactly the best way to establish yourselves and your reputation in the neighborhood. And yet God has never shown himself to be preoccupied with what other people think.

We’ve Lost the Historical Perspective on Christmas

Gus Lloyd: One of the reasons too that I wanted you to give us this insight today is because I think in the here and now in our 20th century, and as we get ready for the 21st century, and we have our Christmas plays and things like that, we’ve kind of softened, if you will, the role of the wise men and the shepherds, and we kind of glorify them and look now a little bit differently than what they were really looked at at the time that Jesus was actually born.

Scott Hahn: Yeah, we sentimentalize so much of the actual history. I think it’s high time for us to realize that when Jesus was meeting with the tax collectors and the sinners and the prostitutes, he wasn’t doing anything new, he was doing what his father had been up to the previous decades and the subsequent centuries.

God is looking out for sinners. That’s why Scott Hahn has a chance, because no matter what the world thinks of Scott Hahn… if I didn’t know me, I’d be impressed, but I know myself too well. I am a first-class sinner. I am capable of doing just about anything men and women have done in history, and some of them I have done.

I remember Archbishop Fulton Sheen going to a penitentiary, and he addresses the group, and everybody was kind of tense, wondering, “What is this high-ranking, articulate prelate gonna tell a bunch of prisoners, a bunch of losers?” And the opening line was,

“The only difference between you and me, guys, is that you got caught.”

Gus Lloyd: Yeah. Was it St. Alphonse that said, “Be watchful, Lord, Alphonse could turn on you any time today”? Something like that.

Scott Hahn: Philip Neri also said the same sort of thing, “Watch out for Philip lest he betray you this day.”

The Real Meaning of Christmas: A Closer Look at the Magi’s Gifts

Gus Lloyd: Right. Let me also bring up something that you mentioned a couple of minutes ago that fascinates me, and I think we can relate to our situations, our very lives today.

When you mentioned that when the Magi brought their gifts, that it perhaps represented some sort of conversion in the hearts or in their minds where they were offering up the gold and frankincense and myrrh and saying in essence, “We give these to you and we renounce now the black arts because we have seen our savior.”

And I really want that to sink home with me today and with everyone that might be listening in that perhaps during this Christmas season, we can look at the giving of our gifts as the Magi did as a renunciation of our old ways, and give gifts in a spirit of conversion.

Scott Hahn: Those gifts were also objectively very valuable. On the market, gold, frankincense, and myrrh would command a pretty good price.

But subjectively, those gifts represented exactly what we have seen this morning, that is a habitual vice, it was a sorcery, it was something that they had probably been apprenticed in and that they were probably training other people in.

And so if you really delve into this, what you’ll discover is so much of what the Magi were doing way back then is what we call New Age today. And see, people have this spiritual hunger. They want to meet that hunger on their own terms. And they want to do it according to their own powers, the powers of nature, the natural powers.

And suddenly they confront the Messiah, a supernatural grace that comes from on high, something we don’t deserve, something we can’t generate on our own power or control ourselves.

Consider How this Applies Today

And I think it speaks to our culture, we have a deep yearning, a deep spiritual hunger. At the same time we have a lot of pride. And so people are dabbling in things that they think they can control in order to meet that hunger. And it doesn’t meet the hunger and they really can’t control it. So it’s high time to renounce it.

But closer to home, we all are attached to things, whether it’s money or property or power or fear of what other people think about us that keeps us from serving the Lord. That’s our gold, that’s our frankincense and myrrh.

When we give our gifts this Christmas, what we ought to do, we ought to give gifts that really have value. We also ought to give gifts that really reflect our need, because that’s where God wants to meet us, precisely at our point of need, where we have become attached to something that is not God, trying to squeeze out of that that which only God can give us.

The Real Meaning of Christmas: A Final Note

Gus Lloyd: Wow.

Scott, the Holy Spirit has just spoken through you in a mighty way, I want you to know that. One more thing that I want you to cover too before we wrap up the program for today. There are those who kind of renounce the celebration of Christmas by saying, “Oh, Jesus wasn’t really born on December 25th, and da da da da da da.” Shed some light on that for us.

Scott Hahn: Well, the date is by ecclesiastical decree. We don’t know exactly what day of the year it is.

But that’s the kind of attitude that Americans are often known for having. They might go to the Holy Land, instead of praying at the spot where Jesus was born, they’re tapping the shoulder of the tour guide and saying, “Are we really sure it’s here? It might have been over there.”

And here are our Israeli tour guides and they’re saying, “This is your Messiah. Who gives a darn exactly what piece of dirt he was born on. Your pilgrims come here and give thanks.”

And I would say the same thing is true for time and space, that we have, thank God, set aside time each year to commemorate the incarnational debut of our Savior. And whether it’s December 25th or December 24th or January 1st, spiritually speaking I don’t give a rip.

I think what we need to care about is that this day sanctifies all the other days. And we ought to let it. And the Holy Spirit can use the preparation, advent, and all the blessings that follow from Christmas to change our lives, quite simply.

Gus Lloyd: Boy, what a great word that is. Scott, I wanna thank you for again braving through your physical condition to be with us and let the Holy Spirit speak through you today.

I was saying earlier in the week that I knew the program this morning would be fascinating. And it has certainly been that and so much more as I have gotten so very much out of it.

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